Fans and critics alike are struggling to reach a consensus about the newest superhero movie from Sony Pictures: Venom. This story about Spider-Man’s infamous alien antagonist minus Spider-Man has managed to rake in almost as many varied opinions as it has cash on its opening weekend. The closest thing to an agreed evaluation that has emerged from long-form reviews and tweeted reactions is that while Venom may not be a good movie by typical standards, it is certainly an interesting one. In this case the word “interesting” codes a lot of other descriptions including entertaining, surprising, and bizarre. It’s not actually altogether surprising that Venom stands out in this fashion though.
Superhero movies have become more predictable as they have become more popular. Marvel Studios has become the gold standard for the genre, but has also applied a rigorous standardized approach to everything element across its line, resulting in a large set of superhero movies that are all recognizably “Marvel movies.” The DC films coming from Warner Brothers and Marvel-related movies from Fox and Sony up until this point provide a similarly familiar tone amongst their line with some notable exceptions like Logan. Reflecting on Venom’s opening weekend and the response it has received, it becomes clear this landscape packed with so many superhero movies needed Venom.
Trying Something New
Venom suffers from an imperfect structure wherein the entire first half of the film is set up for action and stakes that are never entirely clear. In spite of that messiness, the film thrives whenever the camera is on Tom Hardy. There’s a twofold reason for this. First, Hardy is engaged in a way that is truly rare in blockbuster movies. His performance of Eddie Brock presents a protagonist who is easily disliked and very compelling to watch. While the concept of a flawed hero is easy to find in superhero movies, it’s easy to imagine placing Hardy’s Brock in a radically different film, a drama about a broken man in desperate need of help that he continually denies himself. It pushes the boundaries of what the lead role in a superhero film can be with a performance that is impossible to look away from.
The second half of this equation is absurdity of Hardy’s performance and his story. Every possible rabbit hole that he finds, he goes down immediately leading to a variety of scenes that should elicit belly laughs from theatergoers. While viewers may interpret his savage bath with lobsters differently, it is impossible to deny the scene is surprising and constructed for a big reaction. Venom is a superhero movie that continually finds elements that can astonish audiences, for better or worse.
Trying Something Old
Venom certainly doesn’t break the mold of the superhero movies, and there’s actually some value to be found in how it reflects the current state of the genre. The plotting of this origin story actually hews quite closely to the standard model perfected by Marvel Studios. Eddie Brock is a protagonist with mixed qualities but a heart that is surely in the right place put into extraordinary circumstances by a carefully explained progression of events. His adventure ends with a world-saving battle against a villain that is both his visual twin and thematic opposite. This paint-by-numbers script is one of the biggest problems with Venom, and it manages to clarify one of the biggest problems with superhero movies as a whole in 2018. Even Marvel Studios’ stylish approach to this story can’t overcome the tedium of repetition. It’s only through its utter bizarreness that Venom manages to maintain interest.
The movie taps into something older as well, with action sequences that would have felt at home in Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy. The drone chase sequence laden with excessive explosions could have been pulled from the opening sequence of Spider-Man 3. What’s striking about this observation is how an entire approach to superhero movies, one that helped birth the current genre juggernaut, has been largely forgotten. While some might criticize the Raimi movies for their camp tone and ludicrous, scenario-based action sequences, there is nothing inherently flawed about either of those elements. They produced some of the most iconic and impactful superhero movies ever, and are still a lot of fun to watch. Venom kicks its vision back to the early 2000s and rarely hesitates to take strange turns for their own sake, including an ongoing joke about biting heads off. This tonal shift feels dramatically different than any other recent superhero movie, and the difference alone creates a refreshing experience.
More Variety, Not More Movies
Love it, hate it, or find yourself anywhere in the middle, the thing that cannot be denied about Venom is that it stands out from the pack in a decade's worth of superhero movies. As we become adjusted to seeing new movies with superpowered heroes almost every month, it’s easy for the possibilities embedded within the genre to feel smaller. Venom is a movie that reminds us there is still a lot of road left to be traveled in testing the boundaries and choices of a superhero film.2comments
Even one of its smallest choices can be notable and, hopefully, impactful. The casting in Venom stresses the diversity of San Francisco, showcasing a set of minor speaking roles and extras who are every bit as different as the residents of California. It’s a subtle choice and one not touched upon by the text of the film, but it is worth commenting on and an example of one difference in Venom that more superhero movies should adapt.
No matter how consistently fun the movies produced by Marvel Studios or Warner Bros. may be, they come with a recognizable studio approach. Audiences go to the theater to be surprised as well as entertained and having any number of superhero movies dominated by only a few perspectives is bad for both superheroes and movies. Venom is different enough to remind us that even if something is strange or not entirely good, there’s still a lot of joy and interest in simply discovering something unusual.